“American Songwriter” Magazine has a cool contest. Every two months readers can submit the ten albums they’d listen to on their deathbeds. Somebody wins. The prize is a Martin guitar. The winner’s, and several other people’s, selections are listed in each issue. It’s a great way to find out about cool albums, and get reacquainted with old classics.
The criteria for winning are not set forth – at least not anywhere I can find. Although I submitted my selections for the most recent issue, I didn’t win.
On any given day, my deathbed albums could change. These are the top 10 deathbed albums I had in mind a month or so ago:
Little Feat, "Waiting for Columbus"
This is one of my all-time favorite records. I’ve listened to regularly it since I was in high school. I have led a rich life; the only thing I missed was not seeing Little Feat with Lowell George. Accordingly, this live album is a treasure. I know "Americana" is an overused hipster term but this is clearly at the forefront of whatever Americana is. The songs work well together despite not having been written by the same person. The musicianship is excellent. This album exemplifies genius. “Time Loves A Hero” and time loves this album too.
John Prine, "John Prine"
What can I say that the liner notes, particularly Kristofferson's comments, do not? These songs, written while Prine was young, run from tongue-in-cheek ditties to tearjerker laments. They remind us of what’s important. Doesn't everyone know of a "Paradise?" Prine lets us know: simplicity is perfection; we should write about what we know, and what we don’t; and that it’s okay to take on serious subjects with humor. Finally, try to listen to “Hello In There” and not call your mother – you’ll pick up the phone.
Grateful Dead, "American Beauty"
This album is splendid. It’s a collection of roots-based, harmony laden, catchy songs. “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” etc. I dare you to try not to hum any of these songs after you hear them. Robert Hunter was at his best. The Grateful Dead sounds folky and melodic. This album, unlike many others by the Dead, is appealing to a cross-audience. My grandmother would've liked these songs.
Greg Brown, "Slant Six Mind"
All the songs on this album have earthy lyrics and down-home musicianship. Bo Ramsey's guitar work is understated and brilliant. There is not a weak song in this collection. From the title track to the whimsical yet melancholy “Spring and All” this collection is a premier example of Midwestern music at its finest.
Joni Mitchell, "Hits"
The open tunings, her lovely voice, her superbly crafted songs; the only hesitation I have in naming this as a "my deathbed" record is that I might hear it and think I have died because a real angel is singing to me. Joni Mitchell is a songwriter’s songwriter. However, she’s not just for songwriters, “Hits” should be in everyone’s record collection.
Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"
This needs no explanation. This album is forty-four years old and the songs sound brand new. They are still relevant. The big three songs: “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Me (Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues” are so well structured, and so meaningful, every songwriter should study them. The rest of the album’s songs are in line – it’s meditatively beautiful.
Woody Guthrie, "100"
What fifty-year-old didn’t sing “This Land Is Your Land” in school? Every American who has strummed a guitar while singing is mimicking Woody Guthrie. This collection, maybe not technically an album, has songs about it all - poverty, farming, work, politics, love . . . . This stuff is quintessentially American. I want to die with these songs in recent memory.
Johnny Cash, "At Folsom Prison"
I love this album. It has a great back-story – not necessarily the one portrayed in the movie “Walk the Line.” It has songs written by Jack Clement and Harlan Howard. It has a ditty by Shel Silverstein. Glen Sherley’s song, “Greystone Chapel,” is very good. That Sherley’s song was included on the album lends credibility to stories about the generosity of Johnny Cash. Finally, read about the players in the band on this record – then listen to “Cocaine Blues.” Only those musicians, and Johnny Cash, could have created the raw intensity that comes through on that cut.
Craig Carothers, "Nothing Fancy"
A few years ago a friend called me on a Friday evening. He asked if I wanted to attend a house concert. The catch was that the concert was starting in an hour. I’m a homebody - I didn’t know the hosts, hadn’t heard of the performer (Craig Carothers), and had just settled in at home after a long work week. Regardless, I broke character and agreed to go. I wasn’t expecting much and hoped the concert would only go for an hour or so. However, from the first line of Craig Carothers’ first song I knew I was in the presence of a great songwriter. Craig is very clever and compassionate, and those traits come through in his songs. I have several of his records but “Nothing Fancy” (it’s just Craig and his guitar) is my favorite. From the introductory track “That’s How Easy Goes,” to the final song, the album is emotive and brilliant. “Schenectady” registered with me more than any song I’ve ever heard. If I could only listen to two albums on my deathbed, this would be one of them.
Guy Clark, "The Essential Guy Clark"
I could, on another day, have listed any of Guy Clark’s albums as nine of the ten records I’d want to hear on my deathbed. This album’s only flaw is that there are several of Clark’s songs, including his songs from after this album’s 1997 release, that aren’t on it. I won’t knock Bob Dylan, but when I’m knocking on heaven’s door I’d rather have Guy Clark in my ear-buds. If I take my last breath to the last note of “L.A. Freeway” my obituary can accurately state I died peacefully.